How to Get Alignment, Agreement & Consensus Around Change

How to Get Alignment, Agreement and Consensus around Change

My guess is that, whatever you lead, you

Want to lead an aligned organization

See as much agreement in your organization as you can

Find and cultivate consensus

Let me go out on a limb here and guess that it’s been a struggle.

Aligning people around a common mission, vision and strategy is hard work. 

Getting people to agree is difficult.

And finding consensus can sometimes seem impossible. 

I get that. I’ve been there.

The trap I’ve seen so many leaders fall into is that they approach alignment, agreement and consensus backwards.

Many (if not most) leaders try to get:

Consensus first.

Agreement second.

Alignment third.

I’ve tried that too.

The problem with that approach is it almost never works. In fact, it’s backwards.

When you figure out the right order, it can change how you lead forever, and help everyone involved.

If you miss it, it can leave you and everyone you lead floundering.

Consider this: when the automobile was first invented, almost nobody saw how big the car would become. The Literary Digest wrote:

“The ordinary “horseless carriage” is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”

Consensus about the car developed after the car was introduced. Not before.

The application to your situation is direct.

So let’s get at it.

Let’s say you want to engineer some change. It could be a big change (like completely changing the way you do church) or a smaller one (like asking group leaders to serve every week, rather than once a month). The dynamics of change are almost all the same.

Here’s how most leaders typically try to lead change. It leaves people (especially you) frustrated. It is almost never effective:

1.  Try to get consensus. Many leaders try to engineer change by getting consensus first.  You poll leaders, ask their opinion, and discover that many don’t like your ideas. They like it the way it was, not the way you or your team think it should be.

2. Despair over the absence of agreement. Since you can’t find consensus, you can’t find agreement and as a result, you don’t make the change.

3.  Remain unaligned. Alignment isn’t even an issue because you can’t align people who can’t agree and don’t share a consensus on how things should be. The change doesn’t happen and alignment is elusive because everyone is committed to their vision of how things should be.

So what do you do?

Flip it.

Effective leaders have learned that if you flip the sequence, change happens and you can end up with alignment, agreement and consensus.

The key is to reverse the order in which you seek all three. 

1. Begin with alignment. Find a few leaders who share your vision and new strategy and move out from there. The progressive leaders are there. You just have to find them.

Once you find a small tribe in favour of change, listen to the rest of your team. Share the vision. Get input, but don’t seek agreement yet and certainly don’t seek consensus. It will leave you dead in the water.  Once you have even a small team committed to the change, begin to roll out the change. Gently, with humility, but firmly and with resolve and a view to the long haul, introduce the change. Take time to explain why and encourage people to make the change. Sure, some will leave (I wrote about how to handle opposition when you’re leading change here). But you’re building a new core committed to a better future.

2. Once the change begins, start looking for agreement.  Here’s the magic. Don’t miss this. If the change is effective, you will begin to see agreement. People who were on the fence or even opposed might start coming on board. This team can form the core of a tribe of ‘vision casters’ for the future. You will see your team of committed change agents grow from a few to a few more, and eventually maybe to many more.

3. Watch consensus develop. Once the change is implemented and becomes effective, consensus emerges that the change was a good idea. People can’t imagine going back to the way it was. Some dissenters may leave, which is fine and inevitable, but effective change creates a new consensus (if you are concerned about hurting people, read this on how not to crush people when they leave.) As you and your team stay true to the mission vision and strategy you’ve embraced, alignment, agreement and consensus will grow.

Bottom line: Agreement and consensus almost always come on the other side of change. 

Conversely, if you look for agreement and consensus before you change, you won’t change.

If you execute this approach with a deep humility, a firm resolve and if the change you seek to implement is actually a good idea, your chances of successfully negotiating the change go up dramatically by beginning with alignment, then looking for agreement and finally watching consensus emerge.

What are you learning about change? What would you add to this?

11 Comments

  1. Leah on August 1, 2021 at 11:20 pm

    Thanks Carey! I love this. Change is hard. Really hard. Especially in churches. In many ways changing is being able to endure a series of losses. Grieving those losses is hard and takes lots of courage to walk into an unknown future. This strategy is excellent for helping our churches move into the future.

    I would also add that the change you’re bringing has to bring real value to the people we serve. They have to see how it’s beneficial and furthering our mission. If not, then regardless of strategy, you won’t get to full adoption by the congregation. This is not about being a dictator, just an early adopter.

    That’s happened to me plenty of times. I can’t keep track of how many times an idea hasn’t worked out. But that’s the time to go back to the drawing board. Plus, when your ideas don’t work out, you’ve only brought in some early adopters, so the disruption is less and they can help you adapt the ideas to make them more functional moving forward.

    Thanks again Carey. I love how you simplified this difficult task.

  2. Stephen Luna on August 3, 2017 at 11:46 pm

    Great stuff, Carey. Is there a resource that can help me dig into this concept deeper?

  3. Robert Longman on June 27, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    The question, then, is, how does a parishioner challenge the change, which may not be what it’s made out to be? Or is the only answer to differences with the main leader to leave?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 28, 2015 at 4:41 am

      Those with the greatest involvement have the most say. So an involved parishioner would have a voice and be listened to. Someone who does little for the mission would have a voice that counts less.

  4. Cory Matthews on August 21, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    I really like this article, as the changes that have gone effectively in my limited ministry experience seemed to follow this process in general. I’ve always thought of it as making good decisions and tentatively look to see if people buy-in to the concept. I’m realizing how better defining that first step you listed and getting input and alignment from leaders and the people gifted in that area first is a key that I not sure I fully understood. Thanks

  5. Doug Wilson on December 3, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Thanks Carey. Great advice for my new venture.

  6. Eric on May 16, 2013 at 7:02 am

    Similar to entrepreneurship, Carey. A few trailblazers start a new venture and, as it succeeds, others will come in and bring new perspectives of the current and future value.

  7. Dennis on May 15, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Wow, I respect your thoughts and ideas, but I just don’t get it…. Has leadership been pushed into a set of formulas to get results they want? Perplexed..

    • cnieuwhof on May 15, 2013 at 7:57 pm

      I can appreciate that Dennis. It’s just most churches don’t change because the leaders can’t get past the lack of consensus they find. Like many things in live, effective change has a pattern that can be learned. Once you understand it, change becomes much easier. At least that’s what I believe.

      • Eric on May 16, 2013 at 7:04 am

        The desire to be “nice”/”harmonious” and, sometimes, liked and respected constantly get in the way of new, as-yet-unproven ventures….

    • newzgerlzrus on May 16, 2013 at 8:09 am

      The problem with dictatorships is that, instead of respecting you for proving to be right, the naysayers wait behind your back to knock you off the pedestal you put yourself on.

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